The Arctic Is a Freezer That’s Losing Power

“These numbers, I honestly thought that they were even wrong, but they cannot be wrong,” says Carolina Olid, who studies Arctic methane emissions at the University of Barcelona but wasn’t involved in the work. “Wow, they are really, really high.” 

The methane is also coming out of the ground in some places as pressurized gas that Kleber can actually light on fire, as you can see in the video below. “This is a widespread methane emission source that we previously just hadn’t accounted for,” says Kleber. “We can safely assume that this phenomenon is happening in other regions in the Arctic. Once we start extrapolating that and expanding it across the Arctic, we’re looking at something that could be considerable.”

Methane gas is in such high concentrations here that you can set it on fire

Video: Gabrielle Kleber

As the Arctic warms rapidly, scientists are finding ways that it’s both suffering from climate change and contributing to it. Like a freezer that’s lost power, the Arctic is thawing, and the stuff inside it is rotting, releasing clouds of greenhouse gasses. When frozen ground known as permafrost thaws, it creates pools of oxygen-poor water, where microbes chew on organic material and burp methane. The warmer it gets up there, the happier these microbes are and the more methane they produce. (In some places, the permafrost is thawing so quickly that it’s even gouging methane-spewing holes in the landscape.)

Bubbling methane

Video: Gabrielle Kleber

Elsewhere, vast deposits of the gas are hidden in the ground beneath glaciers. When temperatures get low enough and pressures get high enough, the gas freezes into solid methane hydrate—basically, methane trapped in a cage of ice. That ice, of course, can melt as temperatures rise.

The melting of the glaciers also exposes darker-colored land, which absorbs more of the sun’s energy and accelerates the warming of the terrain—a dreaded climatic feedback loop. 

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